NEW YORK — Villanova’s stay in the Big East Tournament lasted just a little more than a New York minute.
OK, that’s an exaggeration, but not by much. The third-ranked and top-seeded Wildcats arrived in the Big Apple Tuesday evening and were back in the comfort of the Main Line by Thursday night following a stunning 64-63 loss to eighth-seeded Seton Hall in the Big East quarterfinals.
No one saw that coming, with the possible exception of Villanova coach Jay Wright.
During Monday’s league conference call, Wright said that no team in the country would want to play Seton Hall or Butler in a one-and-done situation. That was a pretty bold statement considering that until its win over Villanova, Seton Hall (17-16) had not put together consecutive wins since December.
It turned out Wright was right.
Officially, Seton Hall (17-16) won it on a jumper by Sterling Gibbs from the top of the key as time expired. The winning bucket came on a set play after left-handed Darrun Hilliard hit a right-handed floater in the lane with 7.8 seconds left in the game.
In reality, the Pirates won by playing sound defense, taking an early lead and not wilting under the pressure of a 16-0 Villanova run in the second half. The Pirates held the Wildcats (28-4) to 37 percent shooting overall (22-for-58) and 21 percent from 3-point range (4-for-19).
Only freshman Josh Hart (5-for-8) and JayVaughn Pinkston (4-for-8) did not struggle from the field. They finished with 18 and 11 points, respectively. Hilliard shot 5-for-13 and finished with 11 points. Ryan Arcidiacono was 3-for-9 and had seven points. Leading scorer James Bell went 0-for-8 and had just three points.
“We just didn’t make shots,” Arcidiacono said. “They played good defense, but we had some open looks and couldn’t get the shots the fall.”
The Pirates had better success, especially early.
Eugene Teague muscled inside for game highs in both points (19) and rebounds (12) to send Seton Hall to the semifinals for the first time since 2001. The Pirates will take on fourth-seeded Providence (21-11) in the first game of Friday’s semifinal doubleheader. The Friars knocked off fifth-seeded St. John’s, 79-74, in the second game of Thursday afternoon’s doubleheader.
Patrik Auda added 13 points and Gibbs had 10 to pace the Pirates.
“Seton Hall played great,” Wright said. “Seton Hall played better. They made the plays at the end.”
Yeah, but it was Seton Hall’s play early that gave the Pirates the confidence they needed to pull off the upset. Villanova (28-4) came to New York as the regular-season champion for the first time since 1982 and the favorite to cut down the nets Saturday night, all of which meant nothing to the Pirates.
Using the adrenaline of Wednesday’s one-point win over Butler in the opening round as fuel, Seton Hall jumped on the Wildcats early. The Pirates hit eight of their first 10 shots from the field and led by as many as 15 points before setting for a 34-26 halftime lead.
The 26 points were the fewest the Wildcats scored in any half this season. That’s not exactly the way you want to start the conference tournament.
“We learned a lesson,” Hilliard said. “We have to come out strong right from the start.”
In the second half, Villanova showed show why it was 8-0 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime before Thursday. The Wildcats went on a 16-0 tear to turn a 44-31 deficit into a 47-44 lead, its first of the game. Kris Jenkins got the run started and Hilliard’s only 3-pointed of the game brought the burst to a close.
It did not, though, swing momentum in Villanova’s favor. Instead, it turned the game into a see-saw battle with eight lead changes in the final eight minutes.
“We got a little rattled when they jumped on us,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said. “When it was 47-44, we talked about getting back and getting stops. We got two big stops in a row and then Fuquan (Edwin) hit a three and Sterling’s pass to Jaren for a three was big.”
Williard was referring the pin-point feed Gibbs made to Jaren Sina, who promptly buried a 3-pointer with 17.2 seconds left to put the Pirates up, 62-61.
Hilliard countered with a nifty move, switching the ball from his left hand to his right hand to put Villanova back in front, 63-62. All the Wildcats had to do was get a stop and they would still be in New York.
Gibbs had other plans, even though the final play was not designed for him.
Using screens set by Auda and Teague, Gibbs came from the baseline, took a pass from Sina, did a jab step and floated a high-arching shot over the Hilliard’s outstretched arms to make Villanova’s stay in New York a short one.
“It ended up being a little bit of a scramble,” Gibbs said. “The plan kind of got switched up a little bit because of something, someone …”
“A little bit?” Teague chimed in.
“Yeah, a lot,” Gibbs said. “In the end, it was supposed to get in my hands and I was supposed to create a shot for my teammates or create a shot for myself. I just stepped back and hit the jump.”
Just like that, the Wildcats were headed home.
“It’s disappointing and we’re hurting right now,” Hart said. “We came up here to win and anytime you have a goal and don’t achieve it is disappointing, but hopefully this will motivate us to come out and play better in the next game.”
Follow Terry Toohey on Twitter @TerryToohey.
For breaking news SMS alerts from The Reporter, text LANSPORTS to 22700 from your mobile phone. Message and data rates may apply. For help, text HELP. To cancel, text STOP.